Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Best Behavior

Language and morality are inseparable, they flow from the same well. As Noam Chomsky noted, the rules of language are buried deep within the cerebral cortex. We can’t really observe them, we don’t know how they’re hidden, but we can observe their effects. We do know that everyone has a language and everyone has a morality. You may not like their morality as you may not like or understand their language, but they’ve got one, sure as shootin’. We all do, and they’re intimately tied together.

They stem from the inherited internal rules of behavior and communication which all species necessarily have; can’t reproduce without them. The rules of behavior are what we call morality; while their underlying motives may be the same, their manners of expression can wildly differ. However they’re formed, their understanding is visceral, not intellectual. They are shaped by their surrounding culture, just as language is determined by who’s speaking. Likewise, learning another morality can be difficult after the age of, say, thirteen.

We tend to think of morality as covering meta-rules, such as whom you can marry and whom you can kill; but those are only part of the complex of social rules which govern everyone’s behavior, the rebels as well as the priests. Who you can or can’t kill is as basic as how you greet each other or where you wear your shoes or where you go to the bathroom. Even Al Capone was nervous about picking his nose in public. The bottom line is that, when dealing with people, you can no more avoid their social conventions than you can avoid their language. Even a psychopath has to scream at his victim. Violating the rules is as complexly patterned, as various, and as pre-determined as following them.

Which means that babies are born, not only with the capacity to communicate—which they express from day one—but with an inherited understanding of what’s right and wrong, of what are the social rules. You may not think your pre-teen has any idea of the rules of social behavior, but, trust me, they all do. That’s how they get at you so easily, they know just what will tweak your tiller. But those babies, they know right away that they should be fed and they have a right to their mother whenever they want her. And God forbid you should take away anything they think is theirs. They know their rights and what belongs to them. The Golden Rule was made up by a fourth-grader. The Lord of the Flies had it all wrong. I hope.

So, is correcting “bad” behavior as simple as teaching the rules of punctuation? Well, yeah, but… It may be more difficult and the consequences may be more severe, but the principle is the same. The Chinese got out of control, but the Maoist principle of reeducating someone rather than punishing them is the only path to harmony. Punishment is only effective by instilling fear, and social order maintained by fear is in danger of breakdown at any moment; which is one reason why societies forever eventually breakdown: they rely on punishment. That, too, is almost universal, and that, too, never works. Punishment, unfortunately, is a visceral reaction to having been wronged; it’s not a thought-out, well reasoned reaction, it’s from the gut. The trick is, not in teaching criminals that their behavior is bad, but in teaching society that criminal behavior is a societal problem, not an individual one, that crime is a matter of societal structure and education as much as anything (compounded by faulty chemistry or wiring). We can’t hope to have miscreants wise up until we wise up. Once we see scofflaws as sick people, crime will disappear. But it’s damned hard to stifle that visceral reaction of, “I want to kill the son-of-a-bitch.”
My advice? None. It’s like the light bulb, it’s gotta want to change. Very rarely does the light bulb admit that it’s burned out. By that point it’s usually saying, “But I like the dark. And I’d like you all to be here with me. In the dark.”

Thanks, but I’ve got a door to open.

Monday, August 13, 2012

How Come It’s So Fucking Hard to Talk to Believers?

Gregory Koukl
If you go to Christian apologetics Websites, you’ll find long, tedious refutations of atheism, just like you’ll find long, tedious anti-Christian screeds on atheist Websites. Because I agree with the atheists, I can’t find much, besides their strident attitude, to disagree with; but when I hit the Christian sites I find I can’t read but a few paragraphs before I’m boiling over at the inaccuracies. And the inaccuracies are most often of the same variety: misstatements of the atheist position. The favorite tactic is to set up a straw dog, knock it down, and congratulate ones self on ones brilliance.

Let me give you this bit of reasoning from Gregory Koukl on the Website Stand to Reason, in an essay called “Evolution Can’t Explain Morality.” He’s explaining what he perceives as the “naturalist” argument for altruistic morality:

“So, in abbreviated form, the reasoning goes like this: I ought to be unselfish because it is better for the group, which is better for the species, which is better for me. So why ought I be unselfish? Because it is better for me. But looking at what is better for me, is selfishness. So all of this so-called description of where morality comes from, gets reduced to this ludicrous statement: I morally ought to be unselfish so that I can be more thoroughly selfish….

“Since morality is prescriptive, not descriptive, and if it is normative…, it talks about how we ought to behave…”

Which is great and nice and tight. Except that the reasoning doesn’t go like that and morality is not prescriptive. Small problems.

Who does Mr. Koukl think prescribes this morality? Isn’t morality more like language: it’s how we do behave, not how we “should” behave? Doesn’t the prescriptive nature of morality come from one person wishing to impose their views on another? It appears as if Mr. Koukl is arguing that because there has to be someone prescribing morality—otherwise we wouldn’t have it—there has to be a god to do the prescribing. If only morality were prescriptive and not a construct of humanity.

But as usual, such apologetics arguments are really admissions that the arguer has no clue what she/he is talking about. They always start with unproven assumptions and carry on from there. That’s the kind of thinking that leads one to think the Ten Commandments are the word of God. No, really, it does.

As to whether or not we should act unselfish, again it’s misstating the situation. It’s not that we should act unselfish, it’s that we do. It’s not that we ought to behave unselfishly, it’s that selfish people tend to not reproduce so well. The species can’t afford to have a slug of selfish people around; it just kills them off early and has them lead miserable, neurotic lives that leave them with weak sperm counts or whatever. In the long run it rewards peaceful cooperative communities, which is why violence has continued to go down in the world for at least 40,000 years: Mother Nature goes on weeding out the violent.

So, all-in-all, we have been unselfish in our lives, beginning with our family and friends and slowly spreading out from there. We’re doing pretty well at not killing our neighbors; and pretty soon we’ll maybe stop killing the folks on the other side of the border, as well. I have hopes. Most everyone wants to reign in corporate power and utilize the resources for the benefit of the entire species. I think we’ll work towards that next. It’s not going to be easy and it will be brutal; but not so bad as we thought and we’ll win. If it’s good for the species, the species will win; and when the species wins, we all win. The species doesn’t care if you’re selfish; it just won’t let you reproduce well. And that’s why the Enlightenment has spread so quickly: people who have slipped the yoke of religious isolationism have done better than those who haven’t: Sweden-Nigeria, for example.
Richard Deem
The second instance comes from a fellow named Richard Deem who runs a Website called, I believe, Evidence for God. You’d think it would be a pretty short site, but he goes on forever. I couldn’t get much past the paragraph quoted below (“Atheists are left with…”), so I wrote him the following:

If you're going to argue against atheism, at least use their real arguments. Don't imagine arguments and then argue against them. The following quote from you is off the charts. It's an incorrect characterization of atheism. No wonder why you strayed. You didn't understand it. No atheist is going to deny the possibility of God, only the probability of God. Big difference. Anything imaginable is possible; not everything that is imagined is probable. God is highly improbable; that's all we're saying. And that's just a statistical fact.

[Richard’s argument.]

“Atheists are left with a dilemma, since their worldview requires that all things that begin to exist must have a cause. So, logic requires the admission that the universe had a cause. Virtually all atheists say that this cause was some natural phenomenon. It is also possible that the cause of the universe was a supernatural intelligence (i.e., God). However, there is no direct observational evidence for either belief. Those who are ‘strong atheists’ (not working out in the gym, but having a belief that no god exists) have just violated one of the main rules of atheism - that all beliefs are based upon observational evidence. So, any atheist who denies the possible existence of God violates his own worldview.”

To Richard’s credit, he responded to my note:


“Please provide the data behind your claim that ‘God is highly improbable.’ Where are your statistics?”

I gave him my statistics. I replied with this:

It's the statistics of fantasy. Any fantasy can be true in some universe, but to rank statistically, you need a body of data. You have to have a sample of at least one. Without a sample, it's in the realm of fantasy. And an unnecessary one, at that. Every religion is a myth system that has nothing to do with observable reality. None of them explain anything. Now, religions do have a lot of functions in society, don't get me wrong, but it's not in the realm of explaining how the universe works. Religions have no idea about that. Myths aren't reality. They're very influential, but they aren't real. So, the chance of any fiction being real approaches zero in this universe and to be statistically probable would require multiverses and still wouldn't explain observable reality in this universe. In other words, God has the same statistical chance of existing as does Bugs Bunny or J. Alfred Prufrock.

(The next two paragraphs were not in the original letter.)

Let me talk about math for a little bit, because I’m abysmal at it. Nonetheless, if I have faith in anything, it’s math. I have faith in it primarily for two reasons: A) no matter how many times I look at it, 2+2=4; and B) my television works. Now, I don’t understand the connection between 2+2 and my television, but I do know that, if all the numbers don’t line up properly, my television won’t work. I know they can figure out the numbers so accurately that they can put a car on the surface of Mars; so I’ve got good faith that when they tell me the universe is 13.7 billion light-years across, I believe them. I have faith they’re telling me the truth. I have not personally done the math myself, but I have faith that it’s being done correctly.

Ergo, what happened prior to the Big Bang is a mathematical question, at this point, and the math isn’t pointing to any god. The math, right now, is pointing to multiverses which makes a lot more sense. If you were to plot a curve of our understanding of our place in the universe, it would show an exponential expanding of that understanding, from being in the center of the world, to being on a planet around which the sky revolved, to being part of a solar system, to being part of a universe. Logically, it makes sense that there’s something beyond the universe; turns out it wasn’t God but rather more universes. In other words, the math has never pointed towards God. The math never points to a deus ex machina.

(Back to the letter.)

So, yeah, God has an infinitely small possibility of existing, at least in a form any religion on Earth would recognize as God. Which is why I said to not defeat us atheists by positing an argument we don't use. It means you didn't understand the argument or were deliberately misstating it to win your point.
Sam Harris
Pardon me here for nattering on. I was looking for an image of Mr. Deem to accompany this post when I ran across the following statement where he’s critiquing Sam Harris:

“The fact that Harris himself acknowledges that he cannot live up to his own moral values calls into question whether ‘science can determine human values’ in any meaningful way.”

That’s the sort of statement that makes me question the education they’re handing out at Mr. Deem’s alma mater, California State University of Los Angeles. Richard is saying that, because people don’t necessarily follow their moral prescripts, that those prescripts couldn’t have come from evolution? Richard, science isn’t in the business of determining moral codes; science is in the business of learning where moral codes come from. Who does or doesn’t follow a moral code has no influence on where that code comes from. That’s fairly elementary logic. Given that there’s absolutely no observational hint that there’s any sort of god functioning in our world, it makes sense that morality is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Logically, it can be no other way.

The last quote from Deem showed up in paragraph four of his essay, so you can see why I never get beyond the beginnings of apologetics polemics. It’s hard to want to read further when confronted early on with such basic errors. See why I worry about his education?

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Skeptic In Me

I found the debate on the Skeptic website. The debaters aren’t important, except that one of them was Shermer, the Skeptic guy. (Too bad “skeptic” sounds so much like “septic.”) The debate was, “Has science made religion irrelevant?” It was a two-hour debate and I didn’t get through but forty-five minutes before I had to go to sleep.
What makes me leery is that I found the debate on the Skeptic site, so how objective could it be? Am I right to be skeptical? Not that I disagreed with Mr. Shermer, but I wondered about the quality of the opponents, were they the best he could find?

If I can characterize the pro-religion arguments, one proposed that there is more than one kind of knowledge, and the other posited that there is a lot science doesn’t know know. Now, both statements are prima facie true, but neither a priori demonstrates the relevance of religion.

Taking the knowledge argument first, the fellow could have had a point. He could have talked about emotional understanding, he could have talked about spiritual reverence for the universe, he could have talked about the educational and societal values of folk tales as allegory. Instead, he tried to argue that miracles happen. Really, that’s what he did. He tried to argue that A) there’s nothing to say God can’t put aside the laws of physics whenever he (it’s always a “he” for these folk) wants; and B) because miracles only happens one at a time at the will of God, there’s no way to scientifically test them. Furthermore, if you didn’t buy that argument, he’s witnessed miracles himself. So there. Are you going to call him a liar?

Or delusional? The third option is that he’s telling the truth, but, of course, there’s no way to verify that. Furthermore, there’s no way for him to tell if he’s delusion or simply misinterpreting data. But, to accept the third option requires a belief in its possibility. And because of the inability to test the proposition of miracles, it’s the same as believing in God. And it has the same value in a debate: none. One can’t argue that miracles are true because they’ve witnessed them; it’s that the old circular argument. It’s no more valid than saying the Bible is true because it’s the word of God.
Which is why I was suspicious of him as a choice; was he chosen because he’s an easy target and doesn’t mind humiliation, or do his delusions extend to his intelligence?

I didn’t listen to all the second pro-religion fellow’s speech, but his opening drift was that there were enormous questions for which science has no answer, such as what came before the Big Bang? Now, that’s a fairly common argument, although relatively recent as it couldn’t have been put forth before science discovered the Big Bang in the first place. It’s conceding the argument before it’s begun. As soon as one accepts the Big Bang, God becomes irrelevant. Sorry, just does. Science is the process of discovery and to say that religion is free to guess about what’s left, is true but in itself irrelevant.

Still, it’s another case of missed argument. While there’s no way to justify religious interpretation of physical reality, because religion is still so important to so many people, an understanding of religion and the psychology of religious belief is crucial to understand the world. But, of course, that’s not what he was arguing. He was arguing that, despite religion being wrong about all other physical realities, it could still be right about what we don’t yet know about. Got that? It’s a tad convoluted.

Again, while that’s logically true, it’s also irrelevant. It’s the sort of argument one should never bring up if they want to look like they’ve eaten their Wheaties.
The question is: were these pro-god guys thrown to the lions because they were schlemiels, or are they the best the believers have to offer? My suspicion is they’re the guys who like to take the bait and who think they can win the argument head-on. I want to say it’s a waste of talent, but obviously it isn’t.

The issue is: no one ever comes to religion logically. That’s not the path. They come to religion through a personal experience they believe holds its own truth and they unite with others of a like mind, just as people who believe they’ve been taken up in spacecrafts by little green, probing men tend to flock together. It’s a belief to which logic is irrelevant.

Did science make religion irrelevant? Did football make golf irrelevant? Did the automobile make walking irrelevant? Did irrigation make praying for rain irrelevant?

Science? Religion? They’re different fish; they don’t swim in the same waters. Sometimes believer fish want to swim in the science waters, but it doesn’t work; they die there. Nothing makes religion irrelevant other than personal experience. Either the light strikes you and you see, “Oh, that’s how it works!” or it strikes you and you proclaim, “It’s a miracle!” Either way, it’s your experience and yours alone. Take it out in the night and look for an honest man; see what you can find.

Pray that you're not a young child.

H. rudolfensis

We’re happy to announce that H. rudolfensis has been officially added to the human family. It’s on the one hand exciting and on the other a “duh” moment. Regular readers (Hi, Dave) know that I’ve argued for multiple pre-humans for a long time; it seems only logical. Heck, I’ve argued for multiple humans coexisting up until fairly recently (like, maybe, 20,000 years or less) for equally long or longer.

While I’m not the site anyone’s going to for breaking news, I hope a few people drop by for an amateur’s take on life (aren’t we all amateurs?). For those folks I’d like to give a shout-out for Aristotelean deductive armchair reasoning. You’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating.

It comes down to statistics, one of my favorite subjects. If I believe in anything, it’s statistics. For example, if the sun has been showing up every morning for four billion years, statistics say it will probably show up again tomorrow. You can bet on it. It’s a good bet because, if you lose, you won’t have to pay it, anyway. The predictability of multiple human ancestors comes from the patterns of other animals. There’s usually multiple versions of whatever running around, so it was natural to think there must have been multiple peoples running around, as well.
Which got me to counting peoples, way back then. I started with the common logic of what percentage of fossil species do we know about for any branch of the animal tree? Ten percent? That might be high, but let’s go with it. I knew that without being an archeologist. Didn’t do any field work to figure that out; just took what I read. I also knew, without being an archeologist, that we already had two fossils species of humans living together at the same time: us and the Neanderthals (we’re a fossil species but not extinct). Assuming that, at best, we had found ten percent of the hominid fossils from, say, 40,000 years ago, it would stand to reason there could have been as many as twenty different hominid species running around at the same time.

Then the hobbits and the Denisovians appeared. Suddenly we had four fossil hominids scrambling over the Earth at the same time. Now, either that’s four of the projected twenty, or we can boost the projection to forty species. While that might seem excessive for such a recent period, we can, nonetheless, assume that the original projection of a bunch more than two fossil species will turn out to be correct. Going back in time, we can assume that a smaller and smaller percentage of the fossil record is known, so that, if they’re now projecting three hominid species from around two million years ago, we can safely guess there may have been thirty or more species at that time.

That’s from the armchair, but it didn’t take any brilliance on my part. It didn’t even take the application of complex formulas; it only took looking at the situation and saying, “Seems to me…” Gentle musing could come up with that analysis. It did. Sometimes, I think, professionals spend too much time looking so closely at their subjects that they forget to look at the broader picture. Only now are we hearing Leakey, et al, saying to expect more discoveries. Well, yes. Many more.

What’s that law about shrinking computers? Every eighteen months or so? One could graph the pushing back in time of “firsts” and project that graph out into the future with satisfactory results, I’m sure. There is a regular pattern to earlier and earlier discoveries, so that without knowing what that graph would actually look like, one can safely predict that any given “earliest” date will be regularly pushed further and further back. Or that more and more species will be found; same thing. These are predictable patterns. I know that without knowing what the patterns are, without being an archeologist, by simply following the news. It’s lazy, but it works.

So be prepared, little baby peoples are going to come crawling out of the rocks: H. infantalis.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Long Shadow of the San

Today’s news highlights the findings of 44,000 year old tools and beads that, essentially, are identical to those used by the modern San people of the Kalahari Desert. It pushes back the known use of these tools—which include poison, beeswax, and red paint—by 20,000 years. The researchers commented on the relatively quick emergence of these tools 44,000 years ago at about the time modern people were pushing into Europe.

Well, I’m always excited by anything that pushes ages back. What I’m a little curious about is the proposition of a rapid emergence of this culture. The age for beads, certainly, is young, as beads up to 130,000 old have been discovered. They had to make those beads somehow; and that doesn’t seem too snappy a growth, in my mind. If beads are 130,000 years old, who’s to say poison and paint aren’t, too? It seems they’re describing a fairly complex culture; so I’m wondering if the appearance of rapid emergence is not a perception acquired from not having found earlier artifacts? There had to have been a long gestation period for so many different technologies to have been developed and merged.
Judging from the long-term flow of discoveries in archaeology, it’s looking like the creative explosion came with the emergence of modern humans some 150-200,000 years ago. The one biblical declaration that has made sense to me is: “In the beginning was the Word.” It wasn’t the ability to talk that made the difference—Neanderthals probably had that, as well—it was the realization that we had the ability to talk. It was the “Ah ha!” moment that was all the difference between us and our cousins; we had it, they didn’t.